Olympique to Olympics: Montreal Impact’s Champions League match offers early look at CanMNT Olympic hopefuls

The Concacaf Champions League continues to rage on this week, with 8 matches to monitor. In this one, we focus on the Canadian participant, the Montreal Impact, and the battle ahead for the young squad, one littered with U23 Canadians, before rounding things off with a look at the other 7 games. With the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers also coming up, a U23 event, we also look at the U23 Canadians, and what they could potentially bring to both club and country. 

At the Stade Olympique on Wednesday, the Montreal Impact hope to move one step closer to another magical Concacaf Champions League run. 

They will attempt to do so at the Stade Olympique, the same venue where 72 000 attended the final of the 1976 men’s Olympic soccer tournament. The match is sure to capture the attention of many fans, but there is one who will be watching especially closely. 

Mauro Biello, the ex-head coach of the Impact and current head coach of the Under-23 Canadian Men’s National Team, will soon select his squad for the upcoming Olympic Qualifying tournament. He hopes to lead Canada’s under-23 national team back to the Olympic games, for only the second time since 1976. The Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament gets underway March 20th in Guadalajara.

There are a few factors to consider in guessing who could make the trip to Mexico. Firstly, as it is an under-23 tournament, any player born before January 1st, 1997 is ruled out. Also, of note, the Senior Men’s National Team is holding a simultaneous camp in British Columbia, which includes two official friendly matches against Trinidad and Tobago. 

These will have important implications in the complex path to the senior World Cup, Canada’s priority, and thus some players eligible for the Olympic qualifiers could be summoned by the senior side. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the players in the Impact squad hopeful to get the call from club legend Mauro Biello.

Shamit Shome

Shome had a breakthrough season last year. After a couple years of development at the club, he featured in 32 games across all competitions in 2019. The now 22-year-old faces a new challenge this year in trying to prove his worth to Thiery Henry. He was an unused sub in the first leg in Costa Rica, but could have a better chance of featuring in the second leg if the new Impact head coach looks for his midfield to play a bigger role.

Shome earned his first senior national team caps in the latest friendlies against Barbados and Iceland. Depending on how many of Canada’s biggest names playing in Europe commit to joining the camp on the West Coast, Shome has a chance of being called up to the Senior side for the second time. However, if he does not make Herdman’s squad, he is practically a lock for the under-23 side.

Shamit Shome preparing to take on TFC in the Voyageurs Cup final (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

Zachary Brault-Guillard

With former French international Bacary Sagna now departed from the Impact, Brault-Guillard has a real chance to make the Montreal right back position his own this season. He played the full 90 in the first leg in San José and is expected to start in the return leg as well, the question is whether it will be in a back five or four.

At 21 years old, it’s important that he starts matches consistently this season if he wants to make a case to be the country’s first choice right-sided defender. At the moment, Richie Laryea is the favourite, but the senior team’s backline is far from settled. Brault-Guillard has not been called up by Herdman since last summer’s Gold Cup, but one must think he still has a chance of making the upcoming selection. If not, like Shome, he is almost a sure bet for the under-23s.

Brault-Guillard heads down the tunnel ahead of the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup (Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer)

Mathieu Choinière

The 21-year-old midfielder from Saint-Alexandre, Québec, continued to improve last year. He had 19 appearances in all competitions last season, but it is no given that he will improve on those numbers this season in a congested midfield. He was not on the bench against Saprissa in the first leg, but Canadian fans will hope he can make his way onto the field sooner rather than later.

He has represented Canada at various youth levels, but has never made the senior team. He definitely has a good shot at being selected for the Olympic Qualifiers, and if he does, it would surely do him some good, as he looks to build his confidence by grabbing a more regular first-team spot with the Impact.

Clément Bayiha

Bayiha signed for the club as a homegrown player in last year’s off-season. He appeared 11 times last season as a midfielder, and can also be used on the backline. He wasn’t on the bench last week in Costa Rica and is unlikely to play much of a role on Wednesday either unless the line-up is really shaken up. He should, however, get an opportunity sooner or later this season to show the new coach he deserves some more minutes.

The 20-year-old was born in Cameroon and has the option of playing for either Canada or Cameroon at the senior level, but has already represented Canada’s youth teams. Given his previous youth call-ups, it is not hard to imagine him getting the nod by Mauro Biello. Note that even if he does play for Canada at the Olympic Qualifying tournament, he will not have committed to Canada at the senior international level. That would require an appearance for the senior squad in an official match.

Ballou Tabla

Ballou Tabla has perhaps the most important season of his career ahead of him. Two years ago, he left to FC Barcelona B as one of the brightest talents in this country. Much can be said about what happened, as it seemed that maybe the move was premature. It was evident that things were not going well when while on loan to Albacete Balompié in the Spanish second division early in 2019, where he featured only twice. 

He returned to the Impact last summer and played in 4 matches before the end of the year. He definitely needs to be playing more games to continue to improve and regain form. Last week he came off the bench to replace an injured Romell Quioto. Quioto appears to be good to go for the second leg, but there is still a question mark surrounding Orji Okwonkwo, leaving the possibility for Tabla to play a bigger role this Wednesday.

It is fairly clear now that Tabla will not reach the potential of Alphonso Davies, who he was compared to in the past, but he has shown that he has talent, and talent does not get lost. The biggest area he has to improve is probably on the defensive side of the game, something Henry has been stressing with him. 

He committed to Canada amidst great fanfare in September of 2018, but has not been called up to the senior national team since being snubbed from the final 23 man squad for the 2019 Gold Cup. Given this, he is not expected to be going to BC for the upcoming senior camp, but if not, I would give him a great chance at being part of the Olympic Qualifying team. If he manages to find some good form this season, it would not be far fetched either to expect him to be an important part of the senior team once again in the near future.

James Pantemis

The 23-year-old from Montreal sits behind Clément Diop and Evan Bush in the Goalkeeper pecking order, but got 2 starts last season in the Canadian Championship. He will most likely have to wait for that competition to get more games this season, but given he is less than two months young enough to be eligible for the u-23 side, he has a good chance of being selected by Mauro Biello. He has already played for a number of Canada’s youth teams as well.

Karifa Yao

At 19 years old, Yao is the youngest Canadian in the first team. The defender signed a first-team contract on June 4th and has yet to see any minutes. He has played for the national U-15 and U-17 teams. A spot in the Olympic Qualifying roster is no sure thing for him, but it isn’t impossible either. And if his development goes well, who knows… This country could use some defenders…

Looking Forward:

That concludes a round-up of all the Canadians under 23 years old in the current Impact squad. Whether Mauro Biello can lead the Candian under-23s to the 2020 Olympics is far from certain, but what is more certain is that his squad will contain a strong contingent of Montreal Impact players. 

For now though, they must prove their worth at the club level, starting with a very important match at the Stade Olympique on Wednesday.

Champions League Updates

2020 Concacaf Champions League Bracket (Concacaf.com)

Here’s a look at all of the matchups in the Concacaf Champions League, which got underway last week and wrap up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. These are the scenarios going into the second legs.

Atlanta United FC v FC Motagua – Tuesday, February 25th 8:00 PM ET

The first leg in San Pedro Sula, Honduras finished 1-1. Atlanta has a slight advantage of playing at home for the second leg, but this one could go either way.

Cruz Azul FC v Portmore United FC – Tuesday, February 25th 10:00 PM ET

Jamaican side Portmore United will feel hard done by, as Cruz Azul from Mexico scored in the 95th and 99th minutes to steal a 2-1 victory in Kingston. It will take something truly special for the visitors to advance when they meet at the famous Estadio Azteca.

New York City FC v AD San Carlos – Wednesday, February 26th 6:00 PM ET

These two teams exchanged plenty of goals in Costa Rica, NYCFC taking it 5-3. New York City are in full control of the tie, as San Carlos would need to win by three goals, unless they score five, to have a chance at progressing.

Montreal Impact v Deportivo Saprissa – Wednesday, February 26th 8:00 PM ET

TV: RDS, TSN 5, Pre-game: 7:30 PM ET

After an exceptional start to the first leg at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, the Impact, hampered by injuries, had progressively less control of the game as it wore on. The environment definitely had a say in the result, as Montreal’s players had a more and more difficult time in the heat and boisterous energy of the home crowd. 

That should work for them in the return leg though, as the Costa Ricans will be less familiar with the artificial turf surface of the Stade Olympique, and a strong home crowd is expected to welcome them. 

Tactically, it will be interesting to see if Thiery Henry looks for more involvement from his midfield in this one. He only played two midfielders in a 5-2-3 formation last week, but it was a mostly defensive line-up meant to match up to their opponent, as Central American teams are not known for their build-up through the middle.

With 2-2 the half-time score in the tie, a scoreless or 1-1 draw would be enough to see them through. If it finishes tied by a score of 3-3 or more, Saprissa will advance on away goals, and another 2-2 draw would lead to extra time. Otherwise, it’s winner takes all in Montreal.

Tigres UANL v Alianza FC – Wednesday, February 26th 8:00 PM ET

The side from El Salvador impressed with a come from behind 2-1 victory at home against the Mexican giants. It will not be easy for them at “El Volcán”, home of last edition’s Champions League finalists, but they’ve given themselves a chance with the victory.

Club América v Comunicaciones FC – Wednesday, February 26th 10:00 PM ET

If it were not for a 90th-minute goal by América’s Sebastián Córdova, Communicaciones would have the lead in this tie. Instead, the Guatemalan side will face off against the leaders of the Mexican “Clausura” at Estadio Azteca, where most won’t give them much more of a chance than the pitch they’ll play on, as it is the second match at the stadium in two days.

Seattle Sounders FC v CD Olimpia – Thursday, February, 27th 10:00 PM ET

Impact fans will have their eyes on this one as the winner of the Montreal v Saprissa series will face the winner of this tie in the Quarter-finals. The Sounders had a similar fate to the Impact in the first leg in Honduras. They went up 2-0, but Olimpia outlasted the visitors, netting two goals to leave the tie square 2-2, as the sides head to the Pacific North-West.

Los Angeles FC v Club León – Thursday, February 27th 10:00 PM ET

In the only clash between an MLS and Liga MX team, León showed their superior form in taking the first leg by a score of 2-0. Everything will have to go right for the MLS team in Los Angeles if they want to keep their CCL dreams alive.

All matches will be available on TSN.ca/TSN App.

Cover Photo: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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